ARCHAEOLOGIST Dr Peter Harbison said that for John Hunt, it was all about the detail.
Founder of Limerick’s Hunt Collection and the inspiration behind the restoration of Bunratty Castle, John Hunt’s contribution to Limerick, the Mid-West and Ireland has been lovingly brought to life – and in rich detail – in Brian O’Connell’s new biography. According to Dr Harbison, that attention to detail is worthy of Hunt himself.
Few people got to know Hunt as well as Dr Harbison, who described himself as the art dealer’s amanuensis, driving around 1970s Ireland in a battered old Renault 4 as the pair researched Hunt’s two-volume opus on Irish medieval figure sculpture, still the standard reference 40 years on.
“He [Hunt] was a wonderful man for looking at the detail. That was a gift he gave to me, which I have kept with me. That is where craftsmen of medieval times really did their best work, in the detail,” Dr Harbison said at the launch of Mr O’Connell’s book at Bunratty.
“And I know of no academic who has gone into the level of research that Brian has put into this book. I would use the phrase that my gast was flabbered,” said Dr Harbison, himself an author of more than 20 volumes on art history, architecture and archaeology.
Former minister Des O’Malley also paid tribute to the painstaking work Mr O’Connell had put in as he researched John and Gertrude Hunt’s story.
“He must have spent three or four years on this; a real labour of love and something that this region and this country will be forever indebted to him for.”
For all the research, both Mr O’Malley and Dr Harbison agreed this was no dry academic tome of interest only to the art historian.
“It is beautifully written - which is terribly important for books nowadays; that you can actually read them - and the kind of book you can take to bed with you that you keep on reading it not until you go to sleep but until you read the very last page,” Dr Harbison said.
And Mr O’Malley described as touching Mr O’Connell’s dedication of the book to the community around Lough Gur where the Hunts had set up home after leaving wartime England.
Hunt’s scholarship in medieval art was “recognised from the V&A to Versailles”, Mr O’Connell said, and it “provided him with a passport to a world peopled by lords of the realm; senior churchmen; with names such as Rockefeller, Jackie Kennedy, Guggenheim, Hearst, Winston and Clementine Churchill featuring in personal and family correspondence”.
How the renowned art dealer had come to live in rural Limerick - and how he would end up donating his treasures to the Irish state - were among the questions Mr O’Connell said he had sought to answer in his biography.
That decision had left an extraordinarily rich cultural legacy at Bunratty, Cragganowen, at Lough Gur and at the Hunt Museum.
Mr O’Connell read from a letter from John Hunt to Brendan O’Regan in which Hunt wrote “I shall of course accept no payment” for his work in restoring Bunratty. That generosity had been passed on to John Hunt’s children Trudi, who was present on the night, and the late John Junior, whose wife Patricia and children also attended the launch. Nine members of the Hunt family also travelled from England and were hosted by Mayor of Kathleen Leddin at City Hall.
John Hunt: The Man, The Medievalist, The Connoisseur by Brian O’Connell is published by the O’Brien Press and is available in O’Mahony’s and Eason’s.